The Professor-Student Affair, Revisited

Reading between the lines.
July 12 2013 10:00 AM

The Professor-Student Love Affair, Revisited

Two new novels suggest we’re still uncomfortable with the subject.

Illustration by Jeff Zwirek

Illustration by Jeff Zwirek

For a long time now, I’ve been wondering if I should be insulted that not one of my university professors ever hit on me. I try to avoid the usual feminine self-questioning about attractiveness and intelligence; instead, I tell myself that I went to a large public university in an urban setting, and that tiny arts colleges are better soil for that sort of thing. But my school did have its share of professors rumored to dabble in their students. One, I recently discovered, actually wrote a memoir in which he blithely described meeting his second wife in a graduate class there. Clearly it wasn’t the setting that released me from cliché.

Such relationships are not necessarily seedy, predatory things. But even when the encounters involve intellectual equals, they give off a sour smell. Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger had an affair when they were in Germany together, the former as a student of the latter. It looks, at first glance, like a great collision of brilliant minds. Except that Heidegger became a Nazi, and Arendt seemed to excuse this—a bit of forgiveness that has inspired a lot of scholarly infighting about whether she was lovesick or in some way morally compromised herself. That she could have been internally conflicted does not seem to be an available interpretation.

Advertisement

The professor-student romance debate similarly breaks down, for the most part, to two opposing views. In one corner you have your Roiphes and your Paglias, who style themselves as revolutionaries for celebrating the power dynamics of the status quo. In the other you have feminists more aligned with Andrea Dworkin who seem to believe one can remove power from relationships entirely. Were these indeed the only two options, we might all be walking into the river with stones in our pockets. But there are other ways to think about these things. And were you to ask me how, I would say: with novels, with fiction, with stories. Stories can provide sympathy and psychological complexity—without ignoring the ways in which power curbs a relationship.

Susan Choi by Adrian Kinloch
My Education author Susan Choi

Photo courtesy of Adrian Kinloch

And so it is worth considering what, if anything, two new novels have to say on the subject. Susan Choi’s fourth novel, My Education, and Jessica Lott’s first, The Rest of Us, both depict teacher-student relationships. In Choi’s, a student named Regina ends up tangled in the deteriorating marriage of two brilliant scholars, Nicholas and Martha. In Lott’s, the student-professor couple reunite many years on. They are, for the most part, very different books. Choi’s is, not surprisingly, the far more accomplished of the two. But they have one rather telling similarity: Both books seem ultimately uncomfortable with the very subject they have taken on—as though their authors are ultimately unwilling to confront the thicket of moral issues such relationships raise.

Both Choi and Lott tweak their premises like lawyers, as though trying to distinguish their case from precedent. They appear to have made a deliberate choice to get away from the standard Oleanna scenario, away from that moralizing term “sexual harassment.” Neither author makes her protagonist the actual student, in the literal sense, of her lover. Terry, the student in Lott’s book, only audited a class by her eventual lover Rhinehart, a famous poet and professor. Choi’s Regina becomes involved with her professor’s wife, Martha, who is herself an academic. (This bait and switch happens barely 60 pages in; I haven’t spoiled anything.)

Yet the dynamic in each relationship is unquestionably pedagogical. Terry is plainly in awe of Rhinehart throughout the book—a state she is either unaware of or her creator chooses not to analyze, it’s hard to say which. Choi, meanwhile, is perfectly frank about this with her title: My Education. She knows that Regina loved Martha “from such desperate disadvantage.” And she devotes the bulk of the novel to the affair itself. Most of its descriptive passages are about the torrid sex the protagonist is having, beds always being swampy and scented, and showers fraught with erotic peril:

“My eager efficiency in the shower was blunted somewhat, as if encountering head wind, by the enveloping recollection of the shower we’d taken the previous night, when we’d come in by stealth at some hour past one in the morning. We liked to make love very clean and go to sleep very dirty, sweat-enmatted and pungently syrup-adhered. Now back in the shower my attempts to self-cleanse became counterproductive, as my hand dropped the soap while one cheek squashed against the cool tile, and I muffled a groan that emerged like a gurgle and, though standing, almost drowned myself.”

My Education is all sensibility, not sense.

TODAY IN SLATE

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

Republicans Want the Government to Listen to the American Public on Ebola. That’s a Horrible Idea.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

I Am 25. I Don’t Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 11:40 AM The U.S. Has Spent $7 Billion Fighting the War on Drugs in Afghanistan. It Hasn’t Worked. 
  Business
Business Insider
Oct. 21 2014 11:27 AM There Is Now a Real-life Hoverboard You Can Preorder for $10,000
  Life
Atlas Obscura
Oct. 21 2014 12:40 PM Asamkirche: The Rococo Church Where Death Hides in Plain Sight
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don’t Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
  Arts
Behold
Oct. 21 2014 12:05 PM Same-Sex Couples at Home With Themselves in 1980s America
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 21 2014 10:43 AM Social Networking Didn’t Start at Harvard It really began at a girls’ reform school.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.