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.

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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.